By Doug Hennes, University of St. Thomas
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Ever since St. Thomas lost the NCAA Division III football championship game three years ago, Coach Glenn Caruso has thought a lot about what it would mean to take his football team back to Salem, Virginia, for another shot at the title.
In fact, "If I had a dollar for every time I dreamed I'd be back there with these guys," Caruso said, "I'd be a very, very rich man."
Dollars aside, Caruso still was feeling very, very rich on Saturday as the clock wound down in O'Shaughnessy Stadium and his third-ranked Tommies (14-0) prepared to celebrate their 38-17 semifinal victory over No. 2 Linfield.
The resounding win before 3,410 fans moves St. Thomas into the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl for the second time in four years. Mount Union again waits in the wings for the kickoff at 6 p.m. CST Friday, Dec. 18, having defeated UW-Whitewater 36-6 in the other semifinal game.
"I'm very proud of how our kids played today," Caruso told reporters in his post-game news conference. "It's hard to put into words the work, time and effort that these kids have put in… It's not only humbling, but it brings me to tears at times."
Offensive tackle David Simmet, one of 13 seniors who played in or dressed for the 2012 title game, recalled how that trip remains one of his fondest memories of his time at St. Thomas.
"Now to have the opportunity to head back with this team means the world to me," said Simmet, one of four finalists for Division III Player/Citizen of the Year and a two-time Academic All-America.
St. Thomas defeated Linfield in the same manner it has rattled off 14 straight wins this season – a relentless running game that ran roughshod over an opponent noted for its stingy defense, and a defense that gained five turnovers and shut down a running game.
Halfback Jordan Roberts continued to set reords. His 256 yards on 33 rushes was a personal best and he bumped his season total to 1,957 yards to become the leading rusher for a season in St. Thomas history, surpassing Gary Trettel's 1,861 yards in 1990. Roberts has scored the most touchdowns (34) in a season by an MIAC player and leads the country in scoring.
The Tommies finished with 389 yards on the ground – just seven under their season-high of 396 – and held Linfield to a season-low 59 rushing yards. The Wildcats abandoned their running game early and had success with the passing game in the second half (173 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns) but were hurt by three interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Linfield had never lost by more than 15 points in 34 previous NCAA playoff games, and walked onto Palmer Field with an average winning margin of nearly 40 points. The Wildcats were ranked No. 3 in Division III in scoring 50.4 points per game and No. 5 in allowing only 10.7; their No. 2 defense, at 217 yards per game, gave up more than twice as many (444) to St. Thomas.
Linfield coach Joseph Smith called the Tommies' performance "phenomenal" and said that while his team has lost close games during his 10 years, "today was the first time we have been 'beaten' in the playoffs. … They were dominant."
Early start sets tone
St. Thomas blew out to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter with three quick touchdowns.
Junior wide receiver Nick Waldvogel had the big play on the opening drive, a 53-yard reverse run to the Linfield 7 on the fourth play from scrimmage. Two plays later, Roberts ran in from the 4 for the first of three rushing touchdowns on the day.
The defense forced a quick three-and-out punt by Linfield and the Tommies marched 66 yards in 12 plays for a 14-0 lead. All but 10 yards came on the ground, with senior halfback Jack Kaiser finishing off the drive from the 8.
St. Thomas' defense stepped up again on the next Linfield possession. Linebacker Jesse Addo picked up his team-leading ninth sack and stripped the ball from quarterback Tom Knecht. Steve Harrell recovered the fumble at the Wildcats' 27 and the Tommies needed only three plays to score, with Kaiser running the ball in from the 3 for a 20-0 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter.
Addo was on the spot moments later, intercepting a Knecht pass near midfield and returning it to the Linfield 37, but St. Thomas quarterback John Gould was picked off four plays later. Linfield got on the board with a 25-yard field goal three minutes into the second quarter, and the Tommies finished off the first-half scoring with a 30-yard Paul Graupner field goal.
Linfield tries to bounce back in second half
Linfield switched quarterbacks in the second half and went to longtime starter Sam Riddle, who had sat out last weekend's quarterfinal win over Mary Hardin-Baylor with a sprained ankle.
But St. Thomas struck first, stopping Linfield on its opening drive and moving 60 yards in 13 plays for a 30-3 lead on a 13-yard Roberts touchdown run. Riddle fumbled on the first play after the kickoff, but Linfield got the ball back on the next play when Gould was sacked and fumbled.
The Wildcats moved the ball to the St. Thomas 12 on back-to-back passes of 22 yards from Riddle to wide receiver Zach Kuzens, who finished with 11 catches and 132 yards. But a heavy rush led to another interception – this one by Jack Newell at the St. Thomas 15.
Linfield reached the end zone twice in the fourth quarter on Riddle touchdown passes to cut the St. Thomas lead to 30-17 with 6:55 left in the game. But an onside kick failed, giving the Tommies good field position at the Linfield 46, and Roberts took over. He had runs of 3, 29 and 22 yards in the four-play drive to boost the lead to 36-17, and Kaiser ran in the PAT for the final two points.
Roberts gave all of the credit for his big day to his offensive line, which averages more than 300 pounds per player. "They get stronger as the game goes on," he said, "and I just try to hit the holes."
Simmet smiled when asked what it's like to block for the hard-charging Roberts, who admires Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears and his motto, "Never die easy."
"Jordan is great," Simmet said. "We give him an inch and he takes a mile."
Next up: Mount Union
In advancing to the Stagg Bowl, Mount Union avenged losses to Whitewater in the five of the last six championship games, including the last two years. This will be Mount Union's 11th consecutive appearance in the Stagg Bowl, where it is 11-7 in title games since 1993.
Whitewater scored the game's first six points on Saturday on two field goals and Mount Union trailed for the first time this season. But the Purple Raiders answered with two quick touchdowns to lead 15-6 after the first quarter and blew the game open in the second half.
Friday's matchup will be between two of Division III's most powerful teams on both sides of the ball. Mount Union is No. 1 in scoring offense (53.6 points), scoring defense (7.5 points) and total defense (188.3 yards) and is No. 2 in total offense (563 yards). The Tommies are close behind – No. 2 with 52.5 points scored and 9.9 points allowed, No. 3 in defense (226.6 yards) and No. 4 in offense (529 yards).
Caruso called Linfield "the fastest team" St. Thomas has faced this year but said Mount Union is "better, stronger and faster." He noted that when he took over the Tommies, they had just finished a 2-8 season in 2007 and ranked No. 206 among 240 Division III teams. They moved to No. 5 within three years, but "the jump from 206 to 5 is not as steep as to go from 5 to 1 and then 2 to 1," he said. "We have a lot of work to do."
Three years ago in the Stagg Bowl, Mount Union jumped to a 14-0 first quarter lead. St. Thomas climbed to within 14-10 midway through the third quarter but the Purple Raiders salted away the game with two long touchdown drives for the 28-10 win.
• Safety Isaac Seering, of St. Thomas' smallest defenders at 191 pounds, led tacklers for the second straight week. He had a season-high 11 solo tackles and four assists, following eight solo tackles in the quarterfinal win over Wabash.
• Five Tommies – Addo, Harrell, Anthony King-Foreman, Adam Kraft and Ryan Winter – joined in four sacks and eight other players had tackles for losses. In addition to Addo and Newell, cornerback Jordan Young had an interception, and Harrell and Tim McClanahan recovered fumbles.
• Roberts is leading Division III scoring with 206 points and has 2,177 yards from scrimmage.
• Saturday was Caruso's 100th game in eight years as St. Thomas coach. He is 87-13 (.870) overall and 15-5 in the playoffs, including 14-1 at home, where the Tommies are 52-4 under him.
Stagg Bowl Information
The St. Thomas football team is headed to the Stagg Bowl and YOU are invited to join in the fun!
After defeating Linfield College 38-17 in Saturday's semifinals, the Tommies will take on Mount Union in the NCAA Division III Football National Championship game on Friday, Dec. 18 in Salem, Virginia.
The University invites parents, alumni, and fans to cheer the team on in Salem, offering a fan charter travel package that includes roundtrip airfare, coach bus transportation in Virginia, hotel accomodations, a ticket to the NCAA Championships Banquet, a pregame tailgate meal Friday, and a ticket to the game Friday night.
For detailed information, fans are directed to the Stagg Bowl Fan Information site. The site not only outlines details regarding the charter fan travel package, but also purchasing individual tickets and options for watching the game remotely.
Fans can access all of this information via this link: Stagg Bowl Fan Information